Last Wednesday, I had a catch-up lunch with an old friend and former colleague keen to understand a bit more about my transition from Fortune 500 consulting to startups and venture capital. Over Arnold Palmers (Raise a glass...), We explored what turned out to be quite a bit of common ground: Long hours, migraine-inducing spreadsheets, and the centrality of trust-based relationships. Keeping it kindred, we got to talking about how his big firm was spinning up a sort of internal Shark Tank, inviting their staff to pitch business ideas to their execs in exchange for internal funding.
Me: "Rockin! Tell me more about your Demo Day. How many pitches?"
Me: "How long is each pitch?"
Friend: "45 minutes. With another 15 minutes for Q&A."
Me: "Whoa. Y-Combinator's Demo Day Pitches are 2."
Friend: "2 Hours?"
Me: "Uh... 2 Minutes."
This is a doozy of a difference: Entrepreneurs embrace brevity whereas big-company folks literally apologize for it.
Consider this email signature from another big-company compadre:
"Please excuse the brevity and/or typos, as this message was sent from my iPhone."
Let's contrast that with Amazon's Jeff Bezos, whose entire emails famously say:
A Mighty Wind
Business communications grow long-winded for lots of reasons. We're afraid of our bosses, we're trying to appear smart, or we're hedging risk by loading up on up-talk, vocal-fry, and tentative language.
Insecurity aside, there are also structural reasons why "seasoned" business folks tend to bloviate. Many established professionals grew up in businesses where more hours worked meant more money earned. When time equals money, we knowingly (or unwittingly) seek to "fill time" by snatching complexity from the jaws of clarity; generating ambiguity rather than stamping it out. The rallying cry of the old-fashioned hourly biller might as well be "Not so fast, my friend!".
Thing is: Effort-based business models have been steadily going extinct, giving way to fixed fee and outcome-based models at every turn. Even the noble profession has found itself drawn headlong into results-based pricing and payments.
Suddenly, time spent on a job becomes something to be minimized (or at the very least, optimized) rather than maximized.
The Elusive 600
Communication expert Joe McCormack, whose company "The Brief Lab" helps organizations master concise communication, says that his firm's research shows "people speak about 150 words per minute, yet have the approximate mental capacity to consume about five times that number, or 750 words per minute. So while someone is speaking, you have 600 extra words per minute to think other thoughts."
The longer we prattle on, the more excess mental bandwidth we provide our audience. They start to subconsciously use those spare cycles to form judgments about us and predict what we're likely to say next. If they're consistently accurate in their predictions, they'll start to tune you (and your work) out as inefficient, derivative, and low-value.
Joe adds, "If you do the math, brevity is about effectively managing peoples' attention."
This is probably why sitting through a PowerPoint presentation where someone literally. Reads. The. Words. On. The. Slide. To. You. is one of the deepest circles of professional hell.
The Way Forward: Be Brief, Be Bright, and Be Gone
Make an effort to keep your communications relentlessly clear and simple. Develop a knack for extracting simplicity out of complexity; for kneading elegance out of chaos. Become the master of the executive summary. Find your inner Bezos.
The smart folks at Sequoia Capital hang pictures in their offices that remind their investment prospects: "Customers will only buy a simple product with a singular value proposition."
As much as I like that one, I'm particularly fond of this gem from the master of brevity, Theodor "Dr. Seuss" Geisel:
"That's why my belief is
the briefer the brief is,
the greater the sigh
of the reader's relief is."